We live in the future. You may have heard that phrase recently. As a parent in the 2020s, you may remember a time before smartphones. You may remember a time before iPads and tablets were a common part of therapy and education for your child. You now have access to more technological resources than ever before. But sometimes constant access to tech may seem like more trouble than it is worth. Here are some tips on how to make sure technology is working for you and your family.
Your child probably has some access to technology with you at home or while doing school or therapy. You may wonder how much is too much. You may wonder if you should be setting time limits each day for screen time that is available. I encourage you to reframe these questions a little bit. Instead, ask “how much variety of activity is my child encountering throughout the day or week?” For example, time spent interacting with a screen may vary from day to day. But is your child getting outside at least once a day? Are you and your child engaging in a short shared activity together at least once a day? Are you and your child engaging in a longer shared activity together at least once a week? These questions can be more productive than an arbitrary limit on screen time per day. And, they prompt you to think about other activities that can happen throughout the day.
You are likely no stranger to the possible benefits of screen time for your child with autism. Technology may be a critical part of their therapy program or educational progress. Ask yourself what the purpose of screen time is within your family structure. The answer to this question may vary based on the activity. You might engage in screen time to have shared family leisure time, like during a family movie night. Or, you might be using a specific app on a tablet to teach and increase your child’s communication skills. Sometimes you might use a tablet to set up and following a daily schedule. Make a mental list of the different purposes of technology in your life. This will help you inform therapists and educators about your priorities for technology.
Managing content goes beyond parental controls to ensure your child is safe online. (Online safety is also critical). Consider that the spectrum of online content that is available to your child can vary a lot. Technology diets can consist of anything from junk food to nutritious content. First, consider your child’s preferences when it comes to technology content. Once you know their preferences, you can then look at the most “nutritional” options. A video showing how to take turns might be more useful than a shorter video that doesn’t teach any new skills. Or, if your child already had screen time earlier, you might opt for the short video.
There are many ways you can assess how technology is working for your child with autism and your family. The areas discussed above can help you with this reflection process. Of course, it is important to pay attention to signs of technology addiction. One example is a total disinterest in any other type of activity. Another example is extreme distress when technology is not available. But for most families, as long as it is intentional, technology can be a great resource over time.
Courtney Gutierrez, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA Courtney is a behavior analyst, educator, and writer in the Pacific Northwest. She has over fifteen years of experience in the field of autism services, and over ten years of master’s level experience in classroom teaching and ABA therapy. Her areas of expertise include infant and toddler development, parent coaching, ABA clinical leadership and training, P-12 special education, and case consultation for children and young adults with autism and other special needs. Courtney lives in Seattle with her husband and two children.